What is Seen, Not Seen, and What is Felt
Melissa's Fire (from the Roc Paint Sip catalog), 2018
By Bobby Padilla
Acrylic on canvas, 16” x 20"
As I was recently playing with my pup in my backyard, I noticed I tend to get lost in thought as I gaze up over the rooftops into the frosted gold twilight. Actually, I wouldn’t say lost but introspective. As Gillespie and I frolic in the snow I tend to marvel at the silhouettes of roof lines and the fan of tree branches. How the architecture slowly loses its definition, blends with the landscape into a blue-black mass and is illuminated from behind by a brilliant winter sky. The plumes of smoke from a neighboring chimney gives breath to the sunset as if it’s a living thing.
I think about how that enduring experience is one of the most powerful compositional tools in an artist’s toolbox. The silhouette has a long history in art, from landscape to portraiture. It has been a design element used over the centuries from photography and film going all the back to ancient Egypt used to describe the majesty of the Pharaohs.,
There’s just something so simple yet powerful about the silhouette. To drill down a little further, it has philosophical symbolism too. The light and the dark, what is seen and not seen, and the balance of the two, think Ying and Yang. Even with such a long history, it wasn’t all positive.
Going all the way back to the Age of Antiquity, the silhouette has been a prominent feature in art. Probably the most recognizable pieces that come to mind is how silhouettes were used as valuable keepsakes like broaches and cameo pendants. One would have an artist or crafter make a locket with the silhouette of a loved one so it could be worn around their neck and close to their heart. Formal art such as paintings and prints would adorn the decadent parlors and studies of dignitaries who were wealthy enough to commission such pieces.
A Family Group in a Interior, 1829 & An Album of Irish Characters, 1838
By Auguste Edouart
Cut outs on paper
A Family Group in a Interior (above)
An Album of Irish Characters (below)
One of the preeminent artists of that period and style of art was a Frenchman named Auguste Edouart. While around the same time an African American artist, Moses Williams, was making a name for himself as the most sought-after artist in the genre. Edouart pretty much worked within the circles of the French Bourgeoisie and Williams dealt with a completely different clientele which was tough for Williams to reconcile. While he was a free man from Philadelphia, most of his patrons were plantation owners who had made their riches in slavery. Whether in Europe or the United States, the classism of the wealthy upper crust had an effect on the cultural representation of this period. Only a minuscule percentage of the silhouettes of this period were of slaves or native people. Carew Rice, another prominent American silhouette artist, juxtaposed his art against the white upper class with images of the impoverished rural folks of South Carolina.
Revealed Portrait of a Young Woman, 1803 & Cutter of Profiles, 1826
By Moses Williams
Wove paper on silk
Portrait of a Young Woman (above)
Cutter of Profiles (below)
Jump Canal, Crapping Out, Water Wagon, Untitled, (date unspecified)
By Carew Rice
Cut velour on mat, largest 7" x 11" (framed)
Flash forward to now. Artist, Kara Walker, uses the classic silhouette genre to create art to further the discussions of racism, sexuality, and gender, sometimes creating full room sized tableaus.
Untitled, 1994 & Life at Virginny's Hole (Sketches from Plantation Life), 1997
By Kara Walker
Untitled, 12" x 12" (above)
Life at Virginny's Hole at the Museum of Fine Art Fort Worth, 12' x 85' (below)
Not all silhouette history is socially charged. Let’s take a second to really grasp the reach of the simplest of artistic concepts. There are millions of landscapes in every medium created by anyone looking to express themselves. It’s a dark figure or element in the foreground in stark contrast to a bold layer of color. Think about the most famous painting in the world by that Dutch guy…no the other Dutch guy. You know, the one who cut off the tip of his ear and gave it to a prostitute and whose Starry Night is seen as the Holy Grail in high art.
Spring Evening- Akerus Fortress, 1913
By Harald Sohlberg
Oil on canvas
Then there’s the average Joes, like us, who like to round up our friends and paint simple silhouette sunsets, a staple to every paint and sip catalog, while sipping our favorite beverage.
It’s a tried-and-true method for both visual esthetic and quiet contemplation. It could be anything from jewelry or photography to a painting or a scene from a movie. Not to mention the feeling you get just standing on a beach as the sun sets. A silhouette can be as emotional as it can be descriptive. A truly thought-provoking visualization that anyone can easily understand. There’s not much to misinterpret with a silhouette and yet it can still strike a myriad of emotional chords.
Picking Grapes in the Purple Haze, 2015 & Living off the Land, 2015
By Frank Franklin
Picking Grapes in the Purple Haze (above)
Living Off the Land (below)
So, here’s to brilliant twilights over skylines and beaches, to marmalade skies over mountain ranges and bare tree branches that fan out across glowing dawns like stained glass. The next time you’re confronted with a silhouette, allow yourself to get lost in thought, even if for a moment.